Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Man Without Honour

Are the cameras rolling?

Even by his own shameful standards, Brown's performance yesterday at the Chilcot enquiry was a shocker:
“Every request that the military commanders made to us for equipment was answered. No request was ever turned down.

We had a rising defence budget... The spending review of 2004 was welcomed by the chiefs of our defence staff. They were satisfied at the end of the review that they had the resources they needed.”
Unsurprisingly, our retired military leaders beg to differ. Lord Guthrie, ex-chief of the defence staff, says:

“He cannot get away with saying I gave them everything they asked for, that is simply disingenuous... To say the outcome of that process was ‘welcome’ is frankly hyperbole.”
Former head of the Army General Sir Richard Dannatt says:
"It is astonishing and offensive to suggest that if officers had had a choice, they would have chosen the Snatch Land Rover...

Gordon Brown bears responsibility, claiming credit for increasing funding when actually there was a reduction in value."
Ah, responsibility - a concept entirely unknown to the Great Helmsman. From the first moment he became Chancellor we discovered his total inability to take responsibility. Whether it was his destruction of final salary pensions for all but public servants, or his gross mismanagement of the public finances, or his disastrous financial regulatory system, he has never ever accepted that he might have got something wrong. His disasters are always someone else's fault.

And he's turned the abuse of statistics into a high art, painting rosy idealised pictures that have nothing whatsoever to do with the real world. Which is what he did again yesterday.

So let's take a closer look at those defence spending claims.

As usual, this turns out to be incredibly difficult. Under Brown, the government has deployed so many statistical smoke screens, it's very easy to lose track of what's going on. For example, in 2008-09 the official MOD website offers no fewer than three possible figures for defence spending. You can choose between:
  • Defence spending "consistent with HM Treasury guidance", which comes in at £38.6bn; or
  • Departmental Expenditure Limits (DEL), which comes in at £45.5bn; or
  • Net cash requirement, which comes in at £36.4bn
And if you don't like any of those numbers, you can turn to HM Treasury which offers a further range of alternatives. For example, its supposedly definitive Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses 2009 (PESA) says defence spending in 2008-09 was £37.1bn. Well, that's what it says on page 74 anyway. But on page 29, it says it was £44.8bn. That figure purports to be the DEL basis, even though it's different to what MOD quotes for the same thing.

So after a couple of hours scratching your head, all you can really say is that defence spending in 2008-09 was somewhere between £36.4bn and £45.4bn, a 25% margin of obfuscation.

And when it comes to using official government numbers for comparisons over time, well, you can just forget that. The defence spending stats have had even more breaks and definitional changes that this government's notoriously rubbish crime stats.

Not for the first time, we need help from overseas. And fortunately for us, the statisticians at NATO publish data on defence spending across all their members on a broadly consistent basis. And even more fortunately, BOM's old friend Ted Bromund at the US Heritage Foundation has crunched all the numbers and reached some dependable conclusions. And Ted begins by making a crucial point:
"The best way to assess the level of national effort devoted to defense is to measure defense spending as a percentage of GDP. Comparisons of amounts of money over time are rendered meaningless by inflation, especially given that defense costs tend to increase more rapidly than costs in the civilian economy... Measuring defense spending as a percentage of GDP offers a stable and reliable yardstick."
This is a direct echo of the point being made by our defence chiefs today - what matters is not the money we put into defence, but its buying power. Defence costs have always risen more quickly than the general price level, reflecting the increasing sophistication of kit, and the fact that troops pay must be kept at least in line with average earnings, and they generally rise faster than prices. Looking at defence spending as a percentage of GDP is a much more realistic yardstick (albeit still not perfect).

So how has Labour done? Here's Ted's helpful chart (click on image to enlarge):

As we can see, although in strict technical weasel terms Brown is correct in saying that defence spending rose, that is only true when judged against the general price level in the economy - not the actual price of defence purchases. As a percentage of GDP, defence spending has fallen from 2.9% in 1996 to 2.2% in 2008. Ted says:
"What happened after 1997 was extraordinary. From 1999 onward, Britain's armed forces were regularly in action, first in the former Yugoslavia, then in Sierra Leone, then in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet British defense spending as a share of GDP continued to decline...

The Labour governments have evaded the fundamental dilemma posed by their belief that... savings from increased efficiency were to allow the forces to do more with less. This ignored two factors. First, defense costs, especially for procuring advanced systems, are notoriously prone to rise faster than the rate of inflation. In Britain, one Royal United Services Institute expert estimates that defense costs increase 5-10 percent faster than inflation in the civilian economy. Second, while claiming that efficiency gains will materialize in the future is easy, actually achieving them is difficult, especially in government."
BOM readers will be familiar with Brown's repeated but entirely bogus claims to have saved billions through his so-called "efficiency programmes" - we've laughed hysterically about it many times.

But the difference here is that men have died as a result. Our woefully under-equipped troops have been put in harm's way because a loathsome self-righteous charlatan refused to pay for the kit they needed to do the job.

And today, this appalling man has gone to Afghanistan on a grandstanding photo op - a cynical ploy to counter the condemnation he's getting from our professional soldiers.

It makes you want to throw up.

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